I'm an 84-year-old vicar who's being taken to court – but I won't pay my council tax until the Government ends austerity

I have recently started the process of filing for either an Individual Voluntary Arrangement or bankruptcy. It doesn't matter to me, because I live in a council where poverty rates are incredibly high and I've seen the effects of austerity with my own eyes

Paul Nicolson
Friday 30 September 2016 17:09
Campaigners march in an anti-austerity demonstration in central London
Campaigners march in an anti-austerity demonstration in central London

In April 2013 I refused to pay my council tax. I refused because the government’s austerity policies were cutting benefits people in my community needed for basic shelter and survival.

I was duly summoned to Tottenham Magistrates Court along with over 30,000 other late and non-paying Haringey residents. The ensuing legal procedures left me with over £42,000 court costs to pay. I have recently started the process of filing for either an Individual Voluntary Arrangement or bankruptcy.

I founded Taxpayers Against Poverty in 2012 to be a focus for those taxpayers who resent being used by politicians as a justification for cutting social security to a level which causes debt, hunger and homelessness. Aged 84, I live in the Tottenham Hale ward of the London Borough of Haringey, one street’s width distance from Northumberland Park, one of the most deprived wards in the UK. In Northumberland Park, 10.4 per cent of children born have a low birth weight and life expectancy is 20 years shorter than in a wealthy Kensington ward elsewhere in London. Research by the Institute for Brain Chemistry and Human Nutrition has shown that poor maternal nutrition leads to low birth weight and a higher risk of lifetime mental and physical health problems.

That research contributed to my decision to refuse to pay my council tax. Now the Independent reports that researchers in the USA have found a link between low incomes and poorer brain function, and say the stress of life with little money could be part of the reason.

We know from other research done by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that the weekly cost of a healthy diet is around £40. Before April 2013, £73.10 a week Job Seekers’ Allowance was not enough for a single woman to buy a healthy diet, the fuel to cook it and keep warm, clothes, transport and other necessities. After April 2013, the stress of rent and council tax arrears, their enforcement and its costs and bailiffs’ fees, and benefit sanctions hit that already totally inadequate income. Three days of adequate nutrition food from a food bank does not cover a nine month pregnancy.

I went to Tottenham Magistrates Court on the 4th August 2013. Myself and the 30,000 other residents also summoned had £125 added our arrears when the Tottenham Magistrates awarded Haringey Council a liability order. Haringey Council was taxing the benefit incomes of its poorest residents in some of the UK’s most deprived wards. I asked the magistrates how they arrived at the figure of £125 in costs; they refused to tell me.

I appealed that refusal to the High Court. It was heard by Mrs Justice Andrews who told both Tottenham Magistrates and Haringey council that their refusal was “indefensible”. She quashed my liability order. There is no doubt 30,000 other liability orders were also unlawful but the High Court quashed only mine. Since the decision in my case, no council throughout England and Wales can refuse to show how they calculate council tax court costs and, happily, the level of the court costs has now been challenged in other boroughs. The IRRV, the MOJ and the DCLG are thinking of providing a template to councils for the calculation of court costs. My case shook up a system of council tax enforcement where it had never been challenged before.

Haringey Council was also forced, by my complaint to their auditors Grant Thornton, to reduce their 2013/14 costs from £125, for both the summons and the liability order, to a separated £102 for the summons and £115 for the liability order in 2015/16. But Grant Thornton did not seek a declaration from the High Court that Haringey's 2013/14 costs were unlawful. So I challenged that decision before Lord Justice Hamblen, who decided against me and ordered me to pay Grant Thornton's £42,000 costs.

This month Grant Thornton and their solicitors have started the proceedings to enforce £42,000 costs against me. They could have waited until the Appeal Court decided to hear the case when, if I won, the order charging me £42,000 might have been quashed.

There is unfinished business. When I objected to Haringey Council's 2013/14 accounts, Grant Thornton allowed them to include corporate overheads of just under £1.2m in 2013/14 in the council tax summons and liability order costs; the overheads were reduced to £926,555 in 2015/16. My appeal to the High Court against that inclusion failed.

I argue that the overheads represent tens of thousands of pounds of punitive extra tax charged by Haringey Council against their many impoverished late and non-payers of council tax. Quite simply, this is an unacceptable state of affairs – and I intend to continue to protest against it.

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